Peru approach Copa America 2011 seeking to replicate the last edition of the tournament in 2007, when La Rojiblanca escaped a difficult group to reach the quarter-finals, and not the last set of World Cup qualifiers which saw the Andean nation finish bottom of the regional qualification group.
Experienced Coach Sergio Markarian is in charge this time round, having previously led Paraguay on two occasions and taking Greece’s Panathanikos to consecutive quarter-finals in the Champions League and UEFA Cup, highlights of a three-year spell in the country at two clubs during which he is credited with developing the formation that led Greece to victory in the 2004 European Championships. Having vowed not to follow the defensive trend that led the Greeks to success with Peru, Markarian can call on some fine attacking talent, not least Schalke 04’s flying winger Jefferson Farfan, back in favour after a 10 month suspension. Farfan joins Paulo Guerrero in a formidable attacking group – the added width of Fiorentina midfielder Juan Manuel Vargas is a bonus that means Peru have the forward power to trouble even the most illustrious opponents, but the absence of Claudio Pizarro through injury is a hammer blow.
The combination of Farfan, Guerrero and Vargas give Peru admirable attacking threat, but it is further back that has recently been a problem. The disastrous World Cup qualifying campaign that led to Makarian’s appointment saw the side lose each of their nine away games and concede 26 goals in the process, speaking to weaknesses both defensively and mentally. Makarian has spoken of the need to improve the team’s mentality, a long-term project that could be greatly helped – or hindered – by results in Argentina. Improving the on-field weakness, the rather porous defence that has blighted Peru’s recent past, is a more short-term concern. In experienced centre-backs Santiago Acasiete and Alberto Rodriguez, Markarian has the tools to tighten up the backline, while talented midfielder Josepmir Ballon, who spent the season on loan with Argentina’s recently relegated River Plate, will screen the defence in a 4-2-3-1 formation.
Injuries threaten Peru’s chances at the Copa America, however. As well as Pizarro, Guerrero and defender Rodriguez endured fitness concerns as the season ended, recovering in time to be included in the squad but casting doubt on their readiness for the gruelling tournament, while Farfan and Vargas have both suffered knocks in pre-tournament training. If Peru’s firepower is to be so greatly depleted, Markarian will need to concentrate on making his side hard to beat, and the Coach’s record so far is encouraging in that respect, at least. Peru have conceded just three goals in Markarian’s nine games, a vast turnaround from their World Cup qualification record, and similar defensive strength could be needed if Farfan and Vargas do not regain their fitness in time. A 1-0 friendly win over Senegal has given Peru some momentum ahead of their first group game against Uruguay, but in a difficult group also containing Chile and Mexico, Peru’s stronger focus on World Cup 2014 is understandable.
One to watch – Josepmir Ballon: An elegant holding midfielder, the 23-year-old Ballon could not save River Plate from a historic relegation this year but his future is brighter than his former loan employers. Capped 13 times, Ballon will form the stylish side of the midfield partnership with a more forceful teammate.
Carmona – Acasiete – Rodriguez – Vilchez
Ballon – Cruzado
Farfan – Tragadora – Vargas